All we’re really asking for are fair fares

by Christopher Elliott on August 28, 2009

zoomTurns out passengers are upset about rising luggage fees — and more.

I couldn’t have imagined the response to my recent commentary about US Airways’ decision to increase its baggage surcharges. In reader feedback on this site, Twitter and Facebook, it seemed as if many passengers really were on the verge of revolting.

But against what, exactly? I think I know the answer.

It’s really the lies that bother us.

Lies like these.

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Here are fare quotes from New York to London on a travel site. The boldface is a “base” fare, but it’s not the real price. Look below that, in smaller type, to find the “total.”

Is that the total? No. If you need to check a bag or eat on the flight, you’re taken to another page with a huge chart and the following indecipherable instructions:

The following major airlines currently charge an extra fee each time bags are checked with that airline. For passengers whose tickets are sold as a codeshare flight, operating and/or marketing carrier fees may apply. For other airlines, please check that carrier’s website for detailed information concerning that carrier’s baggage fee policy.

There’s no need to mention the popular online travel agency I’ve gotten this from, because they pretty much all do it. And that’s the problem. None of the sites will change their fare displays because they don’t want to put themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

Airlines don’t do much better. Here’s the same fare on an airline site:

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Huh? What’s an “average” fare? What’s the difference between that and a “fare per person”?

Why not just display the total price first?

Of course, none of this includes luggage and food, which few people want to do without on a seven-hour flight.

Are airlines trying to make their tickets appear cheaper than they are? Absolutely.

So what’s the solution? Well, here’s what Frontier Airlines does, and I think it works.

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When you’re quoted a fare, you’re offered several different price options, called AirFares. I asked the airline’s head of customer service to explain in a recent interview.

What we’ve done is create a fare structure that allows passengers to purchase just what they want and that saves them money. Not checking a bag? Perfect, book Economy. Taking a short flight and don’t care what seat you get? Perfect, buy Economy and you can still check-in the night before. Know that you’ll be checking a bag, traveling with the family — so you want advanced seat assignments — TV, a snack and a beverage? Book Classic Plus and get all the amenities in your ticket price and flexibility to change if your plans change.

Frontier’s AirFares are a good start.

I think passengers are upset because they believe they’re being lied to — and they are. The Transportation Department will not act because it says it can’t regulate fares. Yet these are unfair and deceptive practices, if not bait and switch advertising. The DOT has jurisdiction and must act in a situation of deceptive pricing like this. Why won’t it?

Where will it end? At zero fares? At what point will the government step in and say, “enough” — the people we represent deserve fair fares?

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  • traveldonnna

    I think people are also upset because baggage fees that were announced just a year ago keep going up and up. Rather than a rational unbundling of pricing and charging the customer what it costs to handle and transport a bag as some airline flacks tried to say last year, they are clearly using baggage fees as a profit center and they’ll continue to do so until the market will not bear further increases. And it is the lies as well as the lack of rationality and fairness in ticket pricing. There is a reason that hidden city and point beyond ticketing has been around for at least 30 years. Customers do not like being gouged and lied to and forced to pay higher prices simply because they’re traveling to a city with little or no airline competition.

  • Susan

    Agreed, traveldonna. It’s adding insult to injury to raise recently established fees for baggage, and as a result, people are trying to board with the most ridiculously oversized objects which mucks up the entire boarding process. In times when people must watch their budgets closely, it seems it’s far more reasonable to just load up the car and drive most places. It takes a little longer, but I know how many gallons of fuel I’m buying, what I’m paying for it, and that I can load the trunk to my heart’s content.

  • kelley

    I see so much complaining about this, and truly don’t quite know why it’s justified. What is it about airlines that makes people believe they aren’t entitled to a profit? Has anyone noticed that even after cutting jobs, reducing wages, and adding fees, the cost of doing business is still higher than their revenue in many cases. Perhaps you heard about the bankruptcies? This is almost a standard experience everywhere you go, but no one gripes much about the other industries. If you saw a sign in a window that offered a steak dinner for 9.95, would you expect to leave the restaurant with change from your ten dollar bill? More than once I’ve been surprised to find out that I had to pay for parking at a hotel – and that was disclosed at the front desk (the same time they let you know the cost of WIFI), not on the website where you could factor in that cost beforehand. I have never heard anyone complain about that cup of coffee or soda that cost them anywhere from $1 to $4, even though it cost the restaurant about $.15. In fact, you give your server even more money for carrying it 20 steps to your table. Do you remember the name of the last flight attendent you tipped? I don’t know what it costs to buy and maintain conveyors, trucks, trailers, and all the other things required to move luggage, and I don’t know how many people are employed in the process, or how much they make. But I certainly hope that someone at the airlines is smart enough to figure all that out and know enough to realize they are a for-profit operation. If you are that convinced you’re being gouged, pack lighter, or just send your stuff via UPS or FedEx. That will help you get a better idea of what it costs to move goods. If you don’t need it for 4 days, you could move it from LAX to EWR for only $58. If you want to change your clothes tomorrow, that would be $280. Like everyone, I would love it if I could fly for less. But, just like everyone else, I want my airline to still be in business when I show up for my return flight.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/elliott Christopher Elliott

    @kelley I’m not sure if I understand your comment. Are you saying that because restaurants quote a pre-tax, pre-tip price, that it’s OK for airlines to do it?

    That’s not a reasonable argument.

    Also, if I’m understanding you correctly, you believe it’s acceptable to tell a little white lie in order to increase profits. That’s not ethical, whether it’s done by a restaurant, an airline or a car dealership.

    But you’re getting to the core of the problem: If we knew the true cost of flying, many of us would rather drive — or stay home.

  • kelley

    Susan, keep in mind – the more you put in the trunk, the worse your mileage will be, and the more you will pay for gas. And mapquest won’t disclose tolls, or tell you if gas prices will increase while you’re packing, or while you’re on the road. Or that unexpected repair that would cost you $100 at home, but instead was $150 in a strange town. I’m a big fan of road trips, but I also know they cost more than most people realize, but they take the extra expense in stride. Particularly, the added maintenance, and wear and tear, as well as the reduced value of the vehicle when you sell it, because of the added miles. And I know that even on that small scale, people need to come up with the money to fund those things, one way or another.

  • kelley

    Christopher, what I’m saying is that a la carte is completely acceptable in virtually every aspect of our lives, so why is it such an issue with airlines? Granted it’s new, and there’s generally a lot of resistance to change, but the issue seems very overblown.

    Regarding the white lie(s), I don’t really know what the associated costs of that service are, so I don’t know if they are lying or not. Could be – I just don’t have any real evidence one way or another. I know that most of the products and services I provide as a business are not intended to be charitable acts, I expect to make a profit (so I can afford a drink on my next flight). So I tend to think that most business are like that. If someone at the airline stated they were only charging enough to cover their direct, immediate, out-of-pocket expenses, I would think they were either foolish or lying.

    I think a lot of the aggravation can be resolved by the point you made in the article – just make it easy to determine what you’re paying and what you’re getting. If I need to add 4 numbers together, I can do that. But it is frustrating when you need to go to multiple locations within a website to find those 4 numbers. Ryanair walks you through a very simple series of questions, and tells you the “consequences” of your answers as you go, so when you get to the bottom, it’s all tallied and displayed. (I know they’re a favorite whipping boy for the whole a la carte approach, but for a couple extra steps and only a few minutes time, I can save a couple hundred dollars on my flight, which means I’m making the equivalent of over $2000 per hour for the effort.) In the end, the .99 fare is closer to $25 or $30, but the other airlines want over $200. My last flight started at $9.99 and ended up at $42.00. Not bad for a one-way flight from Birmingham, England to Malaga, Spain.

  • turtletrot1

    I wish they would just have a fare inclusive and stop nickle and dimeing us! It must have cost comething for the freight of these bags before. What is so new. Also the cost of deverages like cole and water, and those peanuts were covered by the fares. Why can’t we have this again. The cost for these is in the base….C’mon, airlines, Get Real !

  • http://[email protected] Albert Bruton

    I really can’t understand all this “add on” nonsense that airlines are applying. Luggage fees, booking fees, seat assignment fees, On and on it goes. Why don’t they have a conference and agree that ALL airlines will have one simple policy.
    You arrive at the check in after buying a “basic fare” from whatever source and then you, and all your luggage are weighed. The “basic fare” is for up to a certain TOTAL weight. Every pound over the “basic fare allowance is then charged for.
    The cost of flying is mainly determined by getting the weight of the total load off the ground and to the destination. So a person’s weight, and the weight of their belongings, should determine the price they pay to fly.
    You want to save money when flying? Lose weight! Don’t bring so much stuff with you!

  • Robert

    Kelly wrote -
    “Has anyone noticed that even after cutting jobs, reducing wages, and adding fees, the cost of doing business is still higher than their revenue in many cases.” The reason that the cost of doing business is still higher than their revenue is that airlines have cut fares and in the process, added fees. Fares on average are lower than they have ever been, and there are consequences for these low fares. 1. Airlines feel compelled to increase fee to make up for lower fares. 2. The Government gets the short end on taxes it collects that pays for our air traffic system. government collects taxes on fares, not fees. When services are bundled with the fee it is taxed. When services are unbundled it costs the Government millions that it depends on to keep our skies safe. 3. The fees are discriminatory. Because I have flown 25,000 mikes this year I get free checked luggage but you have to pay to check the same suitcase on the same flight, and you paid the same fare I did. 4. Even though you now pay to check your luggage there are no service guarantees. Try to get your money back that you paid for checked luggage if you have to wait an extra hour for them to find your bag at your destination, if it comes comes out damaged. Good luck!

  • Susan, Salt Lake City

    I was offended in the original article by a quote from some worthless airline lobbyist who said “Passengers have EMBRACED the baggage fees.
    I haven”t “embraced” a damn thing about the fees, the fares, the absurdity of it all. And it’s costing. I no longer make every-other week flgihts to San Diego to see my boyfriend, (have you even noticed Delta?). We drive to Vegas, the half-way point.

    And I’m not lfying to the Jersey Shore for the annual family Labor Day bash. I could afford it, but I’m not willing to put a dime in the pockets of the airlines.

    “Embraced?” I don’t think so.

  • nadabrainiac

    I think I finally get it. Everyone is happy with fares. Nobody is happy with fees. It’s apparently a semantics issue. I read that it would be fine if the fees were bundled into the fares, even though the fares would be higher. At least they wouldn’t be called fees. And if the fares included the cost of two 50-pound checked bags, even though you only brought one carry-on, you would be happier about that than if you paid less for the fare. At least you didn’t see the word fee anywhere.

  • Dolores

    I feel the vast majority of travelers understand that airlines run a business and that business is profit oriented. I have no problem with unbundled services from which to pick and choose. I like being able to see what I’m getting and skipping things I don’t need. I do want to be able to easily see ALL the options and what they cost. I don’t want to be treated rudely as a customer when I ask a question or have a problem. I’m capable of determining what my budget can afford IF I know all the costs. Air travel is stressful. More focus on the customer would be good.

  • Maria

    The problem is, you can’t compare fare prices because you don’t know how much all the extras will cost until you get right to the very last page before you have to buy. These extra fees add up to quite a bit. We flew United cross-country in January and had 2 extra bags. The second extra bag was going to cost us $125. The guy who checked us in took pity on us and waived the fee.

    Prices should be clear, transparent, and easy to compare. PERIOD.

    Kelly the airline shill is ridiculous for comparing this to a restaurant meal. A restaurant is not going to add on $100-200 in extra fees at the last minute.

  • Jonathan

    Contrary to Chris’ comment that online travel agencies don’t include these fees and surcharges because they don’t want to put themselves “at a competitive disadvantage”, I think there is a real opportunity here for the companies to set themselves apart by making clear the real cost of buying airline tickets. If they spun this right, they could score major points with the public as being on their side, thereby winning customer loyalty.

    Imagine if one of these companies offered an interface in which you could select several options, such as the number of checked bags or whether you’d want to be served food on the flight. They would immediately become my first stop when searching for flights. If the company is worried that this will put them at a competitive disadvantage, there’s no reason it needs to: they could keep their current search mechanism in place and provide these extra options from an “advanced search” page (or they could promote it as a “full disclosure” or “actual cost” search). I would think the most difficult thing about providing such a search mechanism would be to keep up with the continually-evolving fees and to resolve how to compare airlines that do not provide the same services at all (such as if one airline provides food for free and the other doesn’t offer food at all).

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